By Tom Elias
This has all the symptoms of a classical political vendetta: At every opportunity, President Trump does whatever he thinks might harm California, which does more to resist his agenda than any other state and which provided the vote margin that saddled him with a popular vote loss in 2016.
In just one late-winter week, Trump took three such actions. First, he threatened to pull federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers out of California, predicting a massive crime wave if he did that. Then his budget director for the second straight year cut out of the next proposed federal budget all $10 million that was spent last year on an earthquake early warning system. His attorney general topped it off by filing suit to knock out California’s “sanctuary state” laws.
California law enforcement for the most part greeted the “threat” of an ICE pullout with a yawn. “Do your worst,” many police chiefs seemed to say. Several had previously testified in federal hearings that fall and winter ICE raids targeting illegal immigrants everywhere from body shops to supermarket checkout lines hurt their own anti-crime efforts by diminishing cooperation and trust between immigrants and cops.
And California officials from the governor down promised to fight Trump’s anti-sanctuary action.
But the state’s response to the threatened quake warning cut is completely different, several members of Congress from both major parties insisting they won’t let seismic warning money disappear from the budget.
“Congress has remained steadfast in its bipartisan support for the system,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, one of the prime thorns in Trump’s side. “I’ll work to see the project (gets funded) just as we did last year.”
And Republican Rep. Ken Calvert of Corona, who chairs an appropriations subcommittee overseeing the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), said “I will continue to advocate for…the earthquake early warning system. This is a system the West Coast needs.”
Of course, Trump hadn’t visited the West Coast as president until the middle of this month, when he was due to fly here to look at border wall prototypes and headline a Beverly Hills fundraiser. In his pre-politics days as a television reality show performer, he was here often, but didn’t venture far from studio lots or his Los Angeles-area properties, not worrying much about the ground shaking. He may never have experienced a significant quake.
The USGS project he seeks to quash, called ShakeAlert, would provide between 30 and 60 seconds notice before earthquakes, allowing millions of persons to get out of harm’s way. Warnings would come via radio, television, alarm sirens and a smartphone app.
The system would also operate in Oregon and Washington, but the great majority of lives that might be saved are in California.
No one doubts that early warnings could help greatly when (not if) the next major temblor strikes. The extra half-minute or more would allow time to duck under desks, move away from sides of buildings that might shed bricks and stones, drive to the sides of highways and get off bridges that might collapse. Each of these things could have saved multiple lives during the1989 Loma Prieta quake and the equally devastating 1994 Northridge shock.
When Trump first threatened to cut the federal contribution to this system, whose app is already being tested, state lawmakers led by Democratic Sens. Robert Hertzberg of Van Nuys and Jerry Hill of San Mateo proposed $23 million in state money to keep the project going.
If the federal government pulls out of ShakeAlert – comparable systems already exist in other quake-prone countries like Japan and Taiwan – California appears ready to go it alone. For sure, those other countries have proven the technology works.
The proposed Trump cut would probably delay setting up 800 new sensing stations which need to be added to 850 that already exist. The added listening posts could increase warning times by detecting earth movements at their very beginning.
Here’s the irony: While Trump conducts his vendetta against California, in keeping with his frequent practice of ignoring his previous actions and statements whenever he gets that impulse, he’s nevertheless likely to attend whatever ribbon-cutting grand opening event the USGS might stage, and then try to take credit for a program he twice tried to kill.